Call it the Great Asia Conflict, a sprawling battle in which the United States fights for "freedom of navigation" in the South China Sea, defends the Philippines from air and sea attack, "supports" Vietnam, and "shields" Thailand. As special operations forces wend through the jungles of Vietnam and Army troops return to Bataan, the White House cranks America's nuclear arsenal up to DEFCON 1. War is imminent.
This is just one of the nightmare narratives sketched out in "Conflict with China: Prospects, Consequences, and Strategies for Deterrence," a RAND Corp. report. The good news: The think tank's study concluded that military conflict with China was not probable. The bad news: That conclusion was based on the assumption that "the United States will retain the capacity to deter behavior that could lead to such a clash."
That assumption might be wishful thinking, for the current administration's military strategy for Asia may well establish the precondition for conflict.
Last year, as the RAND report was making the rounds, the president proclaimed a "pivot" to Asia. Addressing the Australian Parliament, he announced, "I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia Pacific a top priority."
The White House wanted to send a signal that American military power would be a calming regional presence, keeping pace with the rise of China's checkbook and military might. But there are early warning signs that the strategy isn't working.
Supposedly giving teeth to the pivot is the Pentagon's Air-Sea Battle concept. The idea is that the U.S. can bring to bear enough air- and sea-based firepower that no foe could hamper our access to Asian hot spots like the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. But President Obama's anemic plans for future military funding create serious doubt that the U.S. can field the kinds of forces needed to pull this off.
While the White House may not be taking Air-Sea Battle all that seriously, the Chinese are. Beijing is pointedly building weapons designed primarily for the purpose of defeating the United States in future combat. Adm. Robert Willard, former commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, recently warned that, with deployment of its new DF-21D ballistic missiles, Beijing is now capable of sinking our aircraft carriers.
The White House exacerbated its Asia problem last year when it abandoned the long-standing U.S. defense commitment to field forces capable of fighting two major conflicts at once. Beijing now sees another way to prevail over the U.S.: Just wait for or even instigate conflict that demands America involvement elsewhere, then strike in, say, the Taiwan Strait.
Finally, as implementation of the Air-Sea Battle becomes less plausible, the U.S. will likely have to rely on old-fashioned deterrence. The president has a problem here too. A recent cache of classified documents from a secret arm of the People's Liberation Army suggests China plans to maintain a "minimum" nuclear arsenal. Good news, if true. But one might justifiably distrust this magical leak of the most sensitive secrets of the PLA's most obsessively secretive department.
Larry Wortzel, who serves on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, offers one plausible explanation: that "the PLA is involved in a major perception management and disinformation campaign."
With President Obama committed to taking the U.S. arsenal toward nuclear "zero," Beijing would like nothing better than for him to dismiss China as a serious nuclear threat. Of course, this does not explain China's extensive tunneling program, sufficient to house a nuclear arsenal several times larger than the 240 to 400 warheads China was thought to have five years ago.
More and more, the "Asian pivot" is starting to look like downward spiral for U.S. power.
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.